Over the past six years, the GOP has styled itself as the party with a sense of humor — the party that dispenses with pieties or performative acts of solidarity in favor of memes and the occasional slapstick gag; the party that dunks and trolls while the country roils with dysfunction. This tradition was weakly carried out at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend in Orlando.
On paper, the conference offered a lot to laugh at. Papa John, a guy whose sole qualification entails losing his pizza business for saying the N-word on a conference call, was not only invited as a speaker, but dressed in a chef's jacket that said “Papa John” and exclusively referred to as “Papa John.” Also on the invite list: a barely-legal Bitcoin millionaire best known for selling a right-wing knockoff smartphone called the “Freedom Phone;” Rep. Matt Gaetz, who spent last year doing his best Cara Cunningham impersonation while getting investigated for alleged sex trafficking; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the CrossFit-instructing ex-blogger who thinks space lasers start wildfires; Devin “sued a Twitter account pretending to be his cow” Nunes; as well as Dr. Oz and J.D. Vance — two millionaire Ivy grads who peddle folksy remedies, of different varieties, while lambasting the elites they probably did shots with in college. It didn’t help that an official merch graphic looked like a tsunami of menstrual blood (caption: “Ride the red wave”). Or that, at the live auction, someone paid $12,500 for an “original painting” of Donald Trump that looks like this.
The Republican Party only scored their arch reputation by virtue of Trump, with his instinct for withering nicknames, liberal use of caps lock, and ready grasp of memes. That mentality has infected his acolytes, even the most spineless ones (“Our left,” Sen. Ted Cruz said in his speech, are “the least funny people on planet Earth”). The GOP is now full of mini Trumps — Gaetz, DeSantis, Rep. Madison Cawthorn, Candace Owens, Gov. Kristi Noem, would-be Gov. Kari Lake — and at CPAC, they were aping his material. “The CDC, they wanted the powers of the CIA and ended up with the credibility of CNN!” Gaetz cracked. Next year, Cruz promised, Nancy Pelosi would have to “get on her broom — no, that’s not fair. She’s going to get on her private jet, called the U.S.S. Broom.” Glenn Beck even went full prop comic, wheeling out a full chalkboard covered in ostensibly silly doodles during his Reagan dinner keynote.
But Trump’s political success is based on his cult of personality, and his emulators just don’t have his charisma. They can mimic his language and his favorite beats, but they lack both delivery and writing. When radio host Larry O'Connor emceed the Ronald Reagan dinner, for example, he pretended to get an alert on his phone. “I've just gotten a notification — somebody left something in the room here,” he said. “It might be under the tables. If you could just take a quick look, we want to help them out.” He mimed peering out into the audience. “We're looking for Kamala Harris's political future,” he explained. “Apparently, it's lost.”
Beyond the party’s performance issues this weekend, it’s hard to play the swaggering troll while whining about being bullied. The subject that dominated the four days of speeches was cancel culture, and specifically being banned from social media. The event’s slogan (and wifi password) was: “Awake, not woke.” The agenda included talks on alternative platforms or how to “defend the canceled,” and panels called “All the News the Left Permits,” “You Can’t Shut Us Up!,” and “Are You Ready to Be Called a Racist: The Courage to Run for Office.” Getting personally banned from Twitter or “censored” by Facebook featured prominently in the talks of Taylor Greene, Nunes, Papa John, former New York Times writer Alex Berenson, and Beck, among others. The latter claimed that the Left was building “a digital ghetto.” Marco Rubio raged that these days, everyone is “one word” away “from destroying [their] life.” I wonder which one he meant.
Even Trump himself seemed tired of his own schtick. His speech was the apex of the conference, the longest and by far the most packed with spectators. In most respects, it was his standard rally act: 90 minutes that gradually slid from structured news analysis to loose personal grievances. Like other speakers, he leaned in on doomsaying and obsessed over the censors at Twitter; of course, he’d founded Truth Social for exactly that reason. But the taunting energy that typically ungirds his speeches was gone. It came across most clearly in his nicknames — for the House Select Committee on the Jan. 6 Attack, the “Unselect Committee” (“I think that was my term,” Trump informed the crowd, “I think I came up with that.”) For the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which passed into law last November, the “uninfrastructure bill.” His rationale: “I call it the uninfrastructure bill, because there was no infrastructure.”
The whole thing felt like watching a rerun on an old television. The color was gone, not that his fans seemed to mind. “This is like a rock concert for me,” said Alysse Wolf, a 60-something woman from Texas. She arrived in a group of five, wearing matching cowboy hats and yellow shirts that spelled out T-R-U-M-P in red glitter. They called themselves the “Trump Tribe of Texas.” “This is like Elton John, The Beatles, and everyone else I wanted to hear, but they’re all right here.” That’s basically what it was — less ComicCon than reunion tour, an aging musical act playing the old hits.
The sad part of all this was that some members of the crowd this weekend were actually suffering, not because of some perceived oppression or censorship, but because of the abject challenges of American life. On Friday night, I was waiting at a bar for a meet-and-greet with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (she would later have me removed for asking, among other things, if she thought her blogging career had primed her for Congress), when a 21-year-old named Katie asked to wait with me. Katie had also come alone; she’d driven 12 hours for CPAC in search of young conservatives, whom she rarely met in her home state of Maryland. When I asked if she was in school, Katie started to cry. She wasn’t and she didn’t have a job. Her last decade had been defined by health issues; she’d barely made it out of high school. The issues in question turned out to be chronic lyme. But if her diagnosis was specious, the emotional and material tax it had taken was not. So far, Katie had made one friend: a girl crying in the bathroom over a broken zipper on her dress.
Later that night, Taylor Greene gave a speech at the America First Political Action Conference, a rival event largely populated by those who had been banned from the official one. The day-long ordeal had been organized by Nick Fuentes, a wispy troll and right-wing podcaster who has earned a following for hilarious bits like saying women shouldn’t vote and that he’s “just like Hitler.” His fans are a 4chan crowd of white supremacists with Groyper avatars, and his guests included an assortment of names you perhaps haven’t heard since 2017 — Gavin McInnes, the Canadian mustache who founded Vice, then the Proud Boys, and now looks like this; Baked Alaska, the comedy-rapper-turned-livestreamer who has said so much braindead stuff about Jews and “white genocide” that even the DeploraBall banned him; and Milo Yiannopolous, the former Breitbart editor who disappeared from public life for saying pedophilia was fine for gay guys.
The alt-right has been irrelevant for years, and they were clearly stretched for speakers. Streamers with four-digit followings like “Dalton Clodfelter” or “Woozuh” were elevated to “special guests.” But the cruelty in their schtick is still there; the headliner following Fuentes was Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff famous for racial profiling and fostering jail conditions so dire that inmates often needed medical attention; at least one woman died. Taylor Greene’s appearance seemed to signal a return to the early years of the Trump administration, when neo-Nazis not only flirted with elected officials, but had enough clout to get them on stage. To some degree, they are now more alike than ever: Fuentes and his friends have long complained about being banished to the underbelly of the internet; and the modern GOP, with all its agita over censorship, fits right in. When Taylor Greene got on stage, she greeted the crowd: “Hello, canceled Americans!”
Republicans have been dealt an easy hand for the 2022 midterms — supply-chain shortages, pandemic surges, millions of unhappy parents, a sudden invasion in Europe, a sloppy if overdue withdrawal from Afghanistan, and general Democratic incompetence in Congress. But they are whiners and scare-mongerers with no real plans for the future. Their enemies are imagined, as is their oppression. They are more focused on Joe Rogan’s persecution than his average American listener, and if Twitter is not real life, they wail about it like it is. Still, the performance at CPAC previewed a grim possible future — a GOP that is somehow even more deluded but much less funny.
An earlier version of this article misidentified the vlogger Cara Cunningham as Chris Crocker. She changed her name in August of 2021.